BY FÁTIMA VALDIVIA
IN OCTOBER 2018, Julián Carrillo Martínez, an indigenous Rarámuri defender, was killed in his community of Coloradas de la Virgen, located in the municipality of Guadalupe y Calvo, in the northern state of Chihuahua, Mexico. Together with his community, Julián had actively defended indigenous Rarámuri lands and forests against dispossession by different actors, members of drug-trafficking organizations among them.
Julián’s murder is the tip of the iceberg. Every day, indigenous people in the Tarahumara region face acts of racial violence that affect their land, their natural resources, and their lives. These include the imposition of extractive projects such as logging, mining, and tourism, and the implementation of public policies that serve to erase the indigenous population as political subjects, treating them instead as if they were children. Drug trafficking has been part of this assault for the last twenty years or more, a powerful phenomenon that solidifies the privileged position of the region’s mestizo1 men while dispossessing indigenous people.
In what follows, I explain briefly how Rarámuri self-determination is being challenged and transformed by drug-trafficking groups. These observations are based on my nine years’ experience working in the region as a lawyer2 and researcher in support of Rarámuri territorial rights. I do not suggest that Rarámuri communities can be represented in a monolithic or heterogeneous way, as their experiences are diverse and not identical. But I do bring to light the criticism of academic colleagues with respect to the effects of drug trafficking on indigenous communities in Tarahumara, and offer my limited experience and knowledge as a tool to support the indigenous struggle for survivance.3
General Context of the Tarahumara Region
Chihuahua State is territorially the largest state in Mexico, with over 3 million inhabitants. According to the most recent population census by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (2015), approximately 11.8 percent of Chihuahua’s population belongs to one of four indigenous groups: Rarámuri, Ódami, Makurawe, and O’oba. The Rarámuri, or Tarahumara, group is the largest, and this is why the part of the Sierra Madre Occidental that crosses Chihuahua is known as the Sierra Tarahumara (Tarahumara Mountain).
The Tarahumara region is huge, but scarce in natural and economic resources. Drug-cultivating activities began in the late 1960s with marijuana and poppy. Drug seeding soon became the source of alternative income for the mestizo population in the old mining districts. Nowadays, considering the lack of opportunities, it is the most important source of income, not only for mestizos, but also for a large number of Rarámuri, Ódami, and Makurawe families.
The production and traffic of stimulant plants has led to competition for scarce water resources in the area, a constant environment of violence, and militarization of the region since 1970. The first permanent garrison with 150 soldiers was established in the municipality of Guachochi, one of the main Rarámuri centers, as part of the Task Force Mars XX (Condor Operation). In 2008, as part of the War on Drugs in Mexico, the security program known as Operativo Conjunto Chihuahua was implemented. The operation has increased police presence in the region and has triggered violence, with more than 2,000 people killed per year in trafficking-related deaths, of which almost 75 percent were young men between the ages of 15 and 29.
Violence perpetrated by traffickers has recently caused the forced displacement of indigenous communities and the death of indigenous defenders, who confront traffickers’ predatory activities. These events have been documented and denounced, mainly by journalists, in written and electronic media.
Rarámuri Self-Determination in Tarahumara
Although some of the Rarámuri population lives in urban centers in Chihuahua, such as the capital, most of them inhabit the Mountain. There, they exercise religious, social, political, and economic jurisdiction in different geographical areas commonly called communities, ranches, or villages.4 The highest Rarámuri authority is the assembly, composed of all the Rarámuri people who attend community meetings, which are usually held every Sunday. Through the assembly, Rarámuri people nominate religious and political representatives, who keep the communitarian order and resolve internal conflicts through communitarian trials. In most communities, the highest representative body (usually three people) is the Siriame, but it is the assembly that is responsible for making decisions on any issue that involves the Rarámuri community.
Rarámuri authorities must exercise their jurisdiction in a fragmented territory, among competing sources of authority and power—the Rarámuri organization, the state, the ejido,5 and, now, the drug-trafficking groups. This overlapping of multiple authorities in the same space is problematic, and is racially and economically hierarchical. The state and the drug traffickers (led by mestizo men) compete for control at the top, in certain spheres becoming one and the same. Second in command is the mestizo ejidal organization. In last place is the Rarámuri government.
Most Rarámuri communities do not have control of their land due to a lack of legal protection of indigenous lands and, in some cases, lack of the existence of land titles. After the agrarian reform of the Mexican Revolution, the post-revolutionary government imposed the ejido to protect communal land. While this was an important revolutionary achievement, in the case of Tarahumara, the ejido is not in agreement with Rarámuri social and territorial organization, as it only the land rights of so-called ejidatarios, who are always older than 18 and usually men. In addition, the ejido brought about territorial redistribution in line with government criteria, creating a new form of territorial authority that historically has been monopolized by mestizos.
The racial hierarchy in Tarahumara, along with the vulnerability of the Rarámuri people in relation to the legal ownership of their land, leads to several kinds of dispossession. These include overexploitation of the forest by the ejidos and, more recently, by organized crime; the imposition of extractive projects such as mining and pipelines; and cultural exploitation, such as tourism. These projects are supported by the ideology of modernity and economic progress, and are sometimes validated through biased legal proceedings and manipulation of Rarámuri with misinformation and economic gifts.
Faced with racism and dispossession, Rarámuri communities are implementing strategies of resistance and survivance (Vizenor, 2008), creating physical and temporal spaces of autonomy that reaffirm and transform their identity (always changing, contradictory, and complex). This involves tending to the community through festivities, spiritual ceremonies, and community games; protecting and preserving their language; and other activities that are more difficult for the outside observer to describe.
Rarámuri survivance has allowed for success in other strategies of resistance, such as legal defense of the territory. Currently, at least five Rarámuri communities have been granted trials against the state of Chihuahua and several mestizo individuals in response to the imposition of construction projects involving an airport, a pipeline, and tourism infrastructure, as well as overexploitation of the forest. Rarámuri have won some of these cases, yet are still fighting for the effective enforcement of their legal victories.
Today, however, the context is more complex, because Rarámuri communities are not just fighting and negotiating with the state and the ejido, but also with drug-trafficking organizations. Traffickers are redefining the territory through the demarcation of plazas del narco, areas dedicated to the production and traffic of drugs, and through other methods of social control and economic exploitation.
Drug Trafficking as a New Source of Dispossession and Social Control
In parts of the Tarahumara region, drug-trafficking groups, led by mestizo men, have seized much of the fertile land to plant marijuana and poppy, while also monopolizing the few sources of irrigation. This is affecting the Rarámuri economy, as it is mainly based on subsistence sowing of corn, potatoes, and beans. In most cases, traffickers are also exploiting the Rarámuri population as a source of low-cost hard labor during sowing, harvesting, and poppy scoring.6
Recently, activities associated with drug trafficking are also causing deforestation. As mentioned earlier, the indigenous community of Coloradas de la Virgen has taken legal measures to defended its land and forest against logging, which was historically carried out by mestizo caciques and now involves alliances with traffickers. Mexican authorities had denied legal recognition of indigenous landownership until October 2019, when the agrarian court finally recognized indigenous property. Two days after this judicial decision, members of the drug-trafficking group that controls the area killed Julián Carrillo, one of the main land defenders.
Bawinokachi is another, smaller community where, since March 2019, a group of Rarámuri women has struggled against one trafficking group’s illegal logging and occupation of their land. Despite several complaints, state authorities have not been able to stop the logging or punish the perpetrators. Traffickers have retaliated, subjecting Rarámuri women in the community to sexual violence and threats. The women are still fighting, in alliance with the Centro de Capacitación y Defensa de los Derechos Humanos Indígenas (Center for Training and Defense of Indigenous Human Rights, CECADDHI), the nonprofit organization where I work as a lawyer and researcher.
Traffickers are also taking social control into their own hands, taking over the operation of ejidos and activities of the local authorities. They decide who holds public office, and they are establishing new forms of justice parallel to that of the state. In some indigenous communities, this control means the dismantling of gangs, overseeing the clandestine sale of alcohol, and regulating the activities of the civil and indigenous authorities. Some traffickers are requesting jurisdiction to try and punish cases of homicide and rape. Indigenous authorities are, of course, overwhelmed by this situation, and the extreme use of violence by traffickers has caused the forced displacement of entire communities.
My Questions, My Commitment
The emergence of criminal organizations on the socio-political scene challenges the concept of the nation-state as the primary expression of sovereign power in the modern era (Hansen & Stepputat, 2006). The ability of such groups to exercise social control disrupts the traditional concept of sovereignty as an essential and unique quality of the state (Bonilla, 2017), and instead posits sovereignty as an always tentative form of authority linked with colonial contexts and grounded in violence (Hansen & Stepputat, 2006). Some authors suggest that drug-trafficking organizations not only provide new modes of economic production but also new de facto types of power (Hansen & Stepputat, 2006; Saldaña-Portillo, 2016). Is this happening in Tarahumara? Can drug trafficking seriously be considered a source of sovereignty? What is the future of indigenous self-determination in this context? These are the question I am trying to resolve through my doctoral research.
What I can say so far is that drug traffickers in Tarahumara, functioning as private armed forces, are creating new sources of governance imposed by fear, and are legitimized by the inefficiency of state institutions or by their alliance and complicity. This situation is challenging traditional concepts of indigenous self-determination and resistance.
My commitments as an academic, and more so as an ally of these communities, are as follows: first, as a lawyer, to continue supporting the struggles of these indigenous communities; second, as a researcher, to deepen the analysis of the relationship between drug trafficking, the state, and indigenous self-determination. I hope that this analysis brings a different focus to the political and legal approaches to drug trafficking, and that it serves to emphasize the emotional, legal, economic, and political struggles that indigenous populations are facing in order to continue building their history.
Fátima Valdivia is a PhD candidate at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS). A social anthropologist and attorney, she spent close to nine years working as an activist scholar and legal adviser to indigenous communities in the Tarahumara region.
- Mestizaje in Mexico, a racial project that started in the 1920s, posited the mestizo (a person of mixed European and indigenous ancestry) as the basis of Mexican society to the detriment of the indigenous and black populations. Mestizaje asserts that the nation must be ordered according to a hierarchy predicated on mestizo rule over indigenous people, their land, and their resources.
- I am co-founder of Centro de Capacitación y Defensa de los Derechos Humanos e Indígenas A.C. (CECADDHI), a nongovernmental organization focused on the collective defense of indigenous rights.
- “Survivance,” according to Vizenor (2008), refers the indigenous capacity to keep living and making history, not just resisting.
- These denominations do not have a clear definition in the common vocabulary of the inhabitants. Normally, large population centers are referred to as villages or communities, while smaller spaces, inhabited by few families, are known as ranchos.
- The ejido is a legal concept that protects collective land tenure in Mexico.
- Poppy scoring is a labor-intensive process that involves scratching the plant’s seed pods to extract opium latex.
Bonilla, Y. 2017. “Unsettling Sovereignty.” Cultural Anthropology 32 (3): 330–39. doi:10.14506/ca32.3.02.
Hansen, T.B., and F. Stepputat. 2006. “Sovereignty Revisited.” Annual Review of Anthropology 35 (1): 295–315. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.35.081705.123317.
Mancera Valencia, F.J., A. Domínguez Rascón, and A. Herrera Bautista. 1998. Impactos culturales del Plan Maestro Barrancas del Cobre, 1st ed. Chihuahua: Instituto Chihuahuense de la Cultura: Fondo Estatal para la Cultura y las Artes.
Saldaña-Portillo, M.J. 2016. Indian Given: Racial Geographies across Mexico and the United States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Vizenor, G. 2008. “Aesthetics of Survivance: Literary Theory and Practice.” In Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence, 1–24. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.